Homelessness: Think Strategically, Act Humbly

The problem of homelessness has proven vexing for a long time. There were homeless people before that couple in a stable, and there still are...
by | December 23, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

The problem of homelessness has proven vexing for a long time. There were homeless people before that couple in a stable, and there still are - two thousand years later.

To discover the status of government's current efforts, I met with Barbara Poppe, the new Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council for Homelessness (USICH). It was December, 2009, and Ms. Poppe had been on the job for only about a month. This is a good time to speak with a new agency director, because, as she said with smile, "I still know all the answers."

In 2008, the Council's "Business Model for Results in Ending Chronic Homelessness" program placed in the Ash Institute's Top Fifty Innovations in American Government. The Business Model program is an intergovernmental and business planning partnership in which more than 850 jurisdictional CEO's - mayors and county executives - joined business executives in developing over 350 Ten Year Plans to provide housing. The Council had focused on bringing the business world and state and local governments together to find housing for the chronically homeless.

I'm familiar with the problems of the homeless firsthand, since I volunteer at the Arundel House of Hope shelter. This year I will spend several nights 'sleeping over' with homeless people sheltered at local churches near Annapolis, Maryland, including the church where I was married. My experience confirmed that the Business Model program touted by the USICH was indeed happening at the local level and was helping to guide approaches, but that challenges endured.

Anyone familiar with the story of "Million Dollar Murray" will understand why. Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece tells the story of Murray Barr, a homeless alcoholic from Reno, Nevada who racked up health and other costs of a million dollars. The enormous health, social services, and corrections costs of the chronically homeless are often large, but rarely calculated.

I wanted to know where President Obama's new Executive Director was planning to take USICH moving forward.

Poppe hopes to get the Federal departments and agencies to bring more federal resources to helping the homeless, as well as bring a federal focus on services coordination. She'd like to see a Federal strategic plan to end homelessness, and a web portal to help pull it all together. Unfortunately, at present her staff numbers only four. She's clearly outnumbered.

Moreover, the problem of coordinating the silos of separate programs, agencies, and departments remains among the most daunting in our complex society. (See "the Department of Mary Jones.") This problem is at its worst when the focus is on often intractable clients with chronic problems--like "Million Dollar Murray."

Barbara Poppe knows the challenges, too. She and her husband have been working on homeless issues in Columbus, Ohio for a long, long time. She doesn't underestimate the challenges she faces, but Washington shouldn't underestimate her, either!

After all, government's approach can make a difference. A recent report from the U.S. Conference of Mayors'notes that "homelessness among individuals decreased or stayed the same for 16 of the 25 cities (64 percent). Most of the cities that experienced drops in individual homelessness attribute the decline to a policy strategy by federal, state, and local governments of instituting 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness among single adults." In other words, focusing on chronic single adults can make a difference--particularly if you use the 'business plan' approach championed by ISICH and commended by the Harvard Kennedy School.

Unfortunately, the economy is having a terrible impact on homelessness. "In the area of homelessness, nineteen cities (76 percent), reported an increase in family homelessness..." One staffer at the shelter at which I volunteer told me that while they had filed the required 10 year plans with HUD, their more immediate plans were based on five year goals. In addition, the staffer noted that the community's priorities were now more on homeless families and others who are temporarily without shelter, rather than the chronic homeless population.

Both the Mayor's report and Ms. Poppe know that the issue of homelessness doesn't lend itself to any magic solutions. But the issue remains an important one for our nation and for the individuals in need.

About a week before my meeting with Ms. Poppe, I attended a memorial service for Don Beech (almost his real name), a homeless man I'd seen around the Arundel shelter for three or four years. Short, with a long beard and long hair, Don was always smiling. During his last stay in the hospital, Don had finally reconciled with his daughter. She told a staffer that for years she'd driven our town looking at the guys on the street, wondering if she'd recognize her dad. She sat holding his hand as he lay dying of a lung infection linked to his substance abuse and life on the streets.

Note to America: we still need homes for the homeless, and solutions to the problems of homelessness.

Godspeed, Ms. Poppe!